Today we celebrate the Feast of George Herbert, Anglican priest and poet, who died in 1633. In the almost four centuries since his death, Herbert has been remembered as a model of priestly ministry, as well as a metaphysical poet.
You might have first encountered Herbert as the ideal of the country parson—one who gave up a privileged life as the scion of a wealthy family, famous orator, and member of Parliament, to become a simple parish priest. After ordination he served as the rector of a rural parish where he was known for his attentiveness to his parishioners, his personal charity, and providing such fastidious pastoral care that he was compared, while still living, to a saint. His health was never strong, and he died of consumption aged 39.
It’s that last bit that most of us miss when we idealize Herbert as the archetype of parish ministry—his pastoral ministry lasted only three years. (For a more comprehensive exploration of this aspect of Herbert’s legacy, I recommend Justin Lewis-Anthony ‘s hyperbolically titled If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him. No clerics are murdered in the making of the argument.)
However, Herbert is most well known as a poet. His most famous work is The Temple, a collection of poetry published after his death. It is loosely structured around both the physical attributes of a church building and the liturgical seasons of the church year, walking the reader through the difficulties and rewards of living a life devoted to Christ.
Scholars have written at length about how Herbert employed the concept of structure on many levels to engage deeply with the spiritual life. He used deceptively simple language and clever conceits to capture the reader’s attention—his poem The Altar is typeset in the form of an altar table and Easterwings is printed so that viewed sideways it resembles a pair of angel wings—only to deliver powerful observations on a life well lived, with purpose.
My children’s favorite poet is Shel Silverstein of A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends fame. Though I haven’t seen a scholarly take comparing the two, it doesn’t require a close reading to find similarities between Silverstein and Herbert. They share the same artful carving of lines of text into pictures, an unmistakable delight in the English language, and a wily use of mundane or even silly conceits to sneak in some moral lessons. If you have a child who loves poetry, a romp through The Temple could be delightful for you both—and topical as we settle into the 40 days of Lent.
In his poem Lent George Herbert gives counsel that is as helpful today as it was in the 1630s, entreating us not to be diverted from our own fasts and prayers during this season because we see the failures of others in keeping theirs.
“Neither ought other mens abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.”
If the failure of others to faithfully live into life in Christ excused us from trying, then none of us would get to experience the beauty of a Christian life. Hypocrisy, it seems, is as old as time, as is the temptation to use the hypocrisy of others as an excuse to just give up on this whole loving our neighbor thing altogether. But, we are reminded today and throughout this season, we don’t get off the hook that easily in God’s economy. Thanks be to God for that.